3 UC Berkeley alumni receive 2017 MacArthur ‘Genius’ grants


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Three UC Berkeley alumni were among the 24 winners selected Wednesday for this year’s MacArthur Fellowship ‘Genius’ Grant Awards, which comes with a five-year grant of $625,000 to fund any of the winners’ pursuits.

Among the UC Berkeley winners are Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, artist and countersurveillance researcher Trevor Paglen and experimental opera director Yuval Sharon.

The MacArthur Foundation, which declined to comment, does not accept applications or external nominations for the grant. Each year, 20 to 30 winners are chosen based on their creativity, accomplishments and potential for the award to help facilitate their subsequent work, according to the Foundation’s website.

Nguyen, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘The Sympathizer,” started at UC Berkeley after arriving in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975. His work reflects on the Vietnam War, as well as multiple facets of the Vietnamese diaspora.

“I know that my success has been made possible by the generations of writers, particularly minority writers, who came before me whose work has been so important to the development of mine,” Nguyen said in an email. “I was an aspiring writer and activist who was transformed personally, politically, and intellectually by my time (at UC Berkeley).”

Sharon, who received his bachelor’s degree in English from UC Berkeley in 2001, is an opera director and producer known for uniquely combining technology, vocalists and instrumentalists to try to transform the opera experience. He is a current artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has an upcoming production of War of the Worlds later this year.

“I will be making a plan for this in the next few months, as the euphoria becomes reality, but I know I will be using the prize to help me take a creative sabbatical in Japan in 2020,” Sharon said in an email.

After working with his “dream projects” during his sabbatical, Sharon said he would take a step back to evaluate what his next project would be. He added that he would also take the time to do some writing on the ideas he has been pursuing in his work.

Paglen received his bachelor’s in religious studies and a doctorate in geography from UC Berkeley, as well as a master’s degree in fine arts from the Art Institute of Chicago. Working as a conceptual artist and a geographer, Paglen creates art aiming to examine how human rights are threatened in an era of mass surveillance, using tools like public records and declassified documents.

His exhibitions will appear in 2018 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as well as more unconventional places such as in an upcoming exhibition with the Nevada Museum of Art that will be launched into outer space.

Paglen could not be reached for comment as of press time.

Previously, winners have used the money to create more opportunities and circulate their work. According to past award-winner and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicist Carl Haber, who worked to preserve and create access to historical sound recordings, the Fellowship opened many avenues for him to share and bring more attention to his work.

“The MacArthur Fellowship, through the attention it brings, also provides a great opportunity to share the excitement of research, in my case, or artistic or societal efforts,” Haber said in an email. “It becomes a teaching moment for some.”

Contact Alicia Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.